Balancing Fitness and Healthy Eating in ED Recovery

Where do we draw the line between having realistic fitness goals and an obsessive eating disorder?

This is a topic I have been wanting to cover for quite some time now. For 6 months, I was relatively inactive due to a hospitalization. Trying out an array of medications and having limited mobility, I packed on 25 lbs in a very short period of time, reaching a weight I had not peaked at since 2012. This plunged me into the throes of a binge eating disorder that followed my past of anorexia and exercise bulimia mixed with orthorexia. After nearly 7 years of good health, and surviving the dieting culture that almost killed me, I vowed never to go back to that dark place where my weight decided my worth. I would become a body positive warrior. With this new weight, though, I found it to be easier said than done because my body image totally took a turn for the worse virtually overnight.

People around me started to prod at my weight. “Doesn’t it bother you how much you jiggle?” It’s easier to be body positive in an isolated world, but others’ words can cut like a knife, especially those whom you previously considered “friends.”

In recent weeks, I have started to work out again. It all seemed daunting at first, but I have fallen in love with not only fitness, but making sure that my macronutrients (foods we need to consume a lot of for energy) are balanced with my exercise regimen . Instead of restricting my calories, I am making sure I eat enough to keep my body strong. Instead of binging and purging, I allow myself to have any foods I desire in smaller quantities to stave off binges. I started out lifting weights and doing cardio 4-5 times per week, which quickly escalated into 2 cardio and strength sessions daily, 6 times per week. I initially promised my therapist I wouldn’t work out more than once per day, but it made me feel so good. I was burning 250-500 calories per day and trying hard to pack in those extra snacks with my protein, carbs, and fats to compensate.This new found love for fitness can be exhilarating, but I think it can also be dangerous. It’s fun to get into shape for the thrill of a runner’s high without worrying about how much I ate the day prior, but I can see how years ago thoughts of burning off every extra calorie I ate used to consume me.

As long as I am fully honest with myself and my therapist, we have agreed that working out daily can be a part of my recovery. If I am honest with her about where my head is at, then things are good. However, it only takes one comment from a peer, cruelty insulting my body, to leave me swimming in my own head, desperate to get back to my recovery. If this happens, all I typically need is to talk to my therapist, and I return to the healthy mindset that I’ve become accustomed to. To be clear, my mindset with fitness all has to do with my own self-talk. If I am grateful for my legs because they are strong, and can take me on 5 mile runs, then that’s fabulous; rather than critiquing them for anything I see as a “flaw.” The Instagram body positivity community has truly helped me to see that every body is beautiful, and to my bullies from a now-past-life, I can see now that they are only so cruel because they were insecure with themselves.

With all mental health, physical health, and nutritional goals, where do we draw the line between fitness and a mind bordering on a dangerous illness? Yes, I want to look good in a bikini on my family vacation this winter, but I won’t let extra pounds hold me back from flaunting my cellulite, hard work, love handles, and sweat. I keep reminding myself that was only 8 years ago that I was hospitalized with a full-blown eating disorder, and now I am finding the strength to allow myself previous “fear foods”regardless of my exercise regimen. I find that the best way to strike a balance between being healthy and obsessive is to do the opposite of what my eating disorder would dictate. “Oh, you’re too chunky to eat that cupcake,” my ED would prod. “So I’ll have it before dinner. Life’s too short, take that!” I’d respond. Fitness, or really, healthy living, is not only for the thin and beautiful. It’s not about looking a certain way, but it is about how you feel about yourself. It has now been 2 months since I’ve returned to the gym, and haven’t lost any weight that I had gained on various medications. What I have gained is the pride in myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to. I now run 4 miles every morning, and feel more confident in my own skin.

I am proud of my progress, no matter the number on the scale or how many inches I lose; not to mention the muscle gains I have achieved! Opposite to emotion-action is something that I have talked about at length with my therapist, which encourages me to eat a cookie when I am feeling “large and in charge,” or to go for a run when I’m feeling depressed and all I want to do is lay in bed all day. All the while, keeping my ED and bipolar symptoms in check. Not to mention the serious endorphin rush a run gives you, making it all the more worthwhile.  I think that if I started to restrict my caloric intake, or avoiding “fear foods,” I may have to reevaluate my approach. As for now, I’m pretty comfortable and confident rocking my own style in a few sizes up, and am all the more beautiful with the beaming smile on my face, accepting my body for the warrior and gorgeously functional modality it is.

 

Rachel Mandel Contributor Photo
Rachel Mandel: A graduate student and naturalist who hopes to help elementary students stay true to their creativity. She lives happily in her home, Chicago.